This is the furniture finish that fooled our local auctioneer, a man with 30 years of experience selling antique furniture and farm equipment.
I had bought a mower from the auctioneer and he was dropping it off at my workshop when he spotted one of my furniture pieces that sported what I call a barn finish.
He walked over to the piece and asked what I’d repaired on it. I replied that it wasn’t an antique that needed fixing; instead, I had just finished building it and was about to deliver it to a customer.
He didn’t believe me.
After a few minutes of debate, I finally turned the piece over to show him a spot of new, raw wood that was unfinished.
“In all my years,” he said, “I have never seen a finish like that.”
New Finish That Looks Old
While I don’t think this finish would fool an expert on antique furniture, it is a convincing way to add centuries of patina to your projects so they will fit in with an older home or other pieces of antique furniture.
This finish is my favorite to do. You cannot mess it up. Even if you don’t like the final result, you can simply add another coat of lacquer and paint until you get the look you want. Every layer simply adds more texture to the project and makes the finish look better.
Unlike many antiqued painted finishes, this one is safe enough that I allow my daughter to do it. Other finish processes involve a stage where you char a layer of paint with a gas torch or by setting the piece on fire. I’ve tried those methods but I don’t like them. And I’m sure my insurance company would agree.
Instead, I use a high-temperature heat gun. Look for one that has at least 1,500 watts or 1,000° – these are available at industrial supply stores. (Editor’s note: This has been corrected from the print edition of this article. See the blog for details.) Heat guns are a bit slower than a torch, but they’re safer. And I’ll show you how to save some time by skipping a coloring step that makes no difference to the finished look of the piece.
Whenever you use this finish, be sure to practice on a sample board at each stage before you move onto the finished project. That way you’ll see what the next step is going to look like. And when you are done, you’ll have a great sample board to keep.
Begin With Abuse
Before you add color, the first step is to mimic 200 years of use and abuse to the piece. I use a utility knife to chamfer edges, a drill bit to create worm holes and an awl to make bite marks from a dog. To demonstrate lots of wear, use a chisel to imitate a mouse hole. Heat a tin can and place it on the wood to char it. At the end, beat it with a cluster of keys then sand the edges with a power sander.
Aging requires a little creative thinking to decide what areas of the project would see the most scuffing, but it will be obvious if you first look at some real antiques. Concentrate on the base, the knobs, mouldings, doors and drawers. Let the kids help – they’ll require little training.
Don’t Begin With Stain
At its heart, this finish begins with a layer of paint, then a coat of lacquer then another coat of paint. You then blister and scrape your top coat of paint and repeat the whole process again. Then, at the end, you wipe on a glaze to add grime and a coat of dull lacquer to seal it all in.
Some other antique finishes recommend that you start by staining the entire piece and then add the paint. I’ve done this many times myself, and I think you can skip that step. Any raw wood that you expose during the aging process will be colored by the glaze in the end. And in all my years of doing this finish, I’ve never had the finish peel, so I think a base coat of stain is unnecessary.
Begin by brushing on a coat of latex paint. (Hint: Allow the brush to fall on the floor and get some sawdust on it.) Let the paint dry. If some areas of the paint look thin, add a second coat.
Now spray on a coat of lacquer (or brush on a coat of brushing lacquer) and add another one or two coats of the same color paint. Let it dry and get your heat gun.